4 min read

Optimize Your Time – Parkinson's Law and the Pareto Principle

Optimize Your Time – Parkinson's Law and the Pareto Principle
Photo by Aron Visuals / Unsplash

"I have too many things to do and never enough time to do them. And when I try to relax I feel guilty because I am wasting time instead of working on my project(s)/todo list/house chores".

That last part is the most annoying, because when I am relaxing and recharging...well that's exactly what I want to do. Why am I spending my valuable free time worrying about the stuff that I still haven't done?

Maybe you can't relate to that (in which case please email me – we should talk), but if you do: keep reading.

A couple of years ago I was reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport (audiobook from libro.fm here, link to buy from evil bookselling megacorp here). One thing that struck me in the book is that Cal argues that leisure time is crucial for productivity and creativity: he argues that leisure activities can help you recharge and come back to your work with a fresh perspective, and can provide new sources of inspiration and ideas, which can obviously be valuable.

Basically he encourages you to embrace leisure time and to view it as a crucial part of your productivity, rather than simply as a way to relax.

And...yeah. I think he is right.

Except I couldn't do it.

(...and yes, I will write more about that book in a future series because it is absolutely full of insights – and if you haven't read it you should click on the links above and grab a copy – trust me)

The reason I couldn't do it is simple: if I am not working on something or being productive in some way, I feel guilty. And it's worse than that because then I don't do the things I enjoy (but I am also not working on any task because...well, it's my free time), which in turn makes me less productive when it's time to work on my projects.

Isn't that great?

But I found a solution.

It's a combination of time management techniques and being intentional about what I commit to.

Let me explain.

The true reason I feel guilty is because I have goals that I want to reach. So why am I not working on reaching these goals? This is what my brain does when I don't commit to working on a project with a deadline. It sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out.

If I say "I want to launch this project", that is not time bound in any way. There's no deadline. So I feel like I should launch the project ASAP, which makes me feel bad when I am trying to take a break.

Instead, if I break it down in milestones (and set dates for each milestone)...well now I have X amount of work to do before day Y. Which means that if I am on track I can take time to recharge and not feel guilty about it.

It's counterintuitive because having deadlines should stress me more, but because I committed to a certain outcome by a certain date, I can relax without feeling guilty if I know that I am on track.

So how do I make sure I stay on track while leaving time for myself to rest and recharge?

Parkinson's Law and the Pareto Principle.

While driving to Burning Man, in August 2022, I was listening to the audiobook version of "The 4-Hour Work Week" by Tim Ferriss (audiobook from libro.fm here, link to buy from evil bookselling megacorp here).

In the book Tim mentions two productivity laws (also called efficiency theories):

  • Parkinson's Law
  • The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule)

Parkinson's Law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." In other words, tasks often take as long as we allow them to take.

I'm sure you have heard the Pareto Principle mentioned before. If you have not: it is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of Italy's land was owned by 20% of the population. The same can be observed in various domains. Good examples are income distribution in modern societies (where the top 20% of earners receive around 80% of the total income), and the fact that it's common for 80% of a company's sales to come from 20% of its products. It can be observed in nature as well. This observation then became known as the Pareto Principle and it's usually relayed as "roughly 80% of effects come from 20% of causes".

Back to the book.

Tim Ferriss suggests using Parkinson's Law to build an aggressive time-boxing approach, forcing yourself to focus on the most important tasks and avoiding wasting time by taking longer than you need to complete them.

At which point all you have to do is use the Pareto Principle to identify the 20% of tasks or activities that will generate 80% of the results.

Choose wisely, then get it done quickly.

And that's how I allowed myself to spend the last 4 weekends skiing at a nearby resort, guilt free.

Can I guarantee that this will work for you? No, we are all different, especially when it comes to psychology.

But it's worth a try, and maybe I improved the life of some of you, even if just by a little bit.